By Roger Barbee
If you drive slowly enough on roads in Shenandoah County, you will see old, deserted houses dotting the landscape. They may be near the road as if the road had been built right through the homestead, or they may be off in a low-lying plot better suited to protect it from storms, or they may sit majestically among old, weather-worn trees on a hillside. Their siding, dulled by years of unpainted exposure to all kinds of wind, wet and sun have turned to a deep brown, or if painted, the boards and posts and rails bleed dried paint like trees changing colors in the fall.
Sometimes loose shutters hang from blind hinges much like a person holding onto a rope with one hand. Often, but not always, entire windows and doors have been removed, giving the sides and fronts an empty, gaping appearance that seems to stare back at the observer.
Tall weeds and brush dot what had once been a yard that still holds old, overgrown boxwoods, and at times fallen limbs rot on a roof. If you look closely you might see a rose bush, a favorite at one time of the woman who lived in the house, still blooming against the worn siding, or a bed of irises that continue to give pleasure to anyone willing to slow down and look. Outbuildings, usually in worse condition than the house, collapse into the surrounding land and the earthen barn, small or large, is always near.
Amid rambling honeysuckle, poison ivy, or other creeping growth, old and rusty farm equipment may be seen. You won't see it from the road, but the hand-cut limestone foundation still sits true, supporting the sills of the house. Set tight, the stones never needed mortar, and their blue-grey hue has weathered well with the years. Rotting leaves and other matter conceal a walkway of stone or gravel leading to the front steps, which likely sag from age and wear. Out back are the remnants of a small building with one narrow door that has a half-moon cut into it, and look closely for a large but low limb of a big tree, and a rope might be seen hanging from it - all that is left of a child's entertainment for long afternoons.
These deserted houses come in many styles and shapes. Some have porches that speak to their owner's means and others are rather plain - just two over two rooms with a shed roof in the back for the kitchen. Some still show the elaborate gingerbread of their rails and roof line. Bay windows face out on others, speaking to a design with a bit of splash. Two doors on the front greet any visitor, and all are a witness to the history of this area and to a particular family who built the house and lived in it for ever how long. Those walls and floors and trim witnessed a history that is now silenced by desertion. Many things cause a homestead to be deserted by its family, and it can only sit unprotected, exposed to the elements, vandals, varmints, and time.
I have come to appreciate several of these old homesteads in the county. Near Hudson's Crossroads there is one with large bay windows on both floors overlooking the front porch. However, my favorite is one that I have enjoyed since 2001. As you travel north on Interstate 81 and begin to cross Narrow Passage Creek, look to your right to see the old, weathered boards of what once must have been a fine home sitting next to the creek, overshadowed by the bridge. Look at the narrow Gothic window that the builder put on the second story of the south side. In "The History of Edinburg," there is a photograph of the house, and it is credited with being the home of Jim Sheetz, the master woodworker who made much of the gingerbread still seen on local homes.
In the photograph, the house looks rather plain, with a small porch. However, for me, that Gothic window speaks volumes about the builder. Unlike now, glass was not so easy to obtain when he built his house, and glass for a Gothic window must have been a special order. So, Mr. Sheetz went to much trouble and expense for that window. It is a detail that has waned with the years, but at one time it was a grand statement of the families who built the culture we now live in.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.